Wednesday, April 13, 2011

John Adams to Francis Adrian Van Der Kemp

One note of criticism that's been directed to our examination of the "key Founders" is that it overly focuses on the Jefferson-Adams post-Presidential correspondence, which, by the way, is contained in a fascinating and illuminating volume.

But Jefferson and Adams did correspond with other people and, for future plans I'd like to focus more on the lesser well known folks with whom Jefferson, J. Adams and the other notable Founders corresponded.

Rev. Francis Adrian Van Der Kemp -- a unitarian minister -- was one of those lesser well known correspondents.

But today, instead of focusing on FAVDK's writings (look for more on that in the future) I highlight a letter of Adams to FAVDK who seemed to be, like Jefferson, someone with whom Adams felt very comfortable sharing the explicit details of his theology.

I reproduce a great deal of Adams' letter to FAVDK dated 13 July, 1815.

My friend, again! the question before mankind is,—how shall I state it? It is, whether authority is from nature and reason, or from miraculous revelation; from the revelation from God, by the human understanding, or from the revelation to Moses and to Constantine, and the Council of Nice. Whether it resides in men or in offices. Whether offices, spiritual and temporal, are instituted by men, or whether they are self-created and instituted themselves. Whether they were or were not brought down from Heaven in a phial of holy oil, sent by the Holy Ghost, by an angel incarnated in a dove, to anoint the head of Clovis, a more cruel tyrant than Frederic or Napoleon. Are the original principles of authority in human nature, or in stars, garters, crosses, golden fleeces, crowns, sceptres, and thrones? These profound and important questions have been agitated and discussed, before that vast democratical congregation, mankind, for more than five hundred years. How many crusades, how many Hussite wars, how many powder plots, St. Bartholomew’s days, Irish massacres, Albigensian massacres, and battles of Marengo have intervened! Sub judice lis est. Will Zinzendorf, Swedenborg, Whitefield, or Wesley prevail? Or will St. Ignatius Loyola inquisitionize and jesuitize them all? Alas, poor human nature! Thou art responsible to thy Maker and to thyself for an impartial verdict and judgment.

“Monroe’s treaty!” I care no more about it than about the mote that floats in the sunbeams before my eyes. The British minister acted the part of a horse-jockey. He annexed a rider that annihilated the whole treaty.

You are “a dissenter from me in politics and religion.” So you say. I cannot say that I am a dissenter from you in either, because I know not your sentiments in either. Tell me plainly your opinions in both, and I will tell you, as plainly, mine. I hate polemical politics and polemical divinity as cordially as you do, yet my mind has been involved in them sixty-five years at least. For this whole period I have searched after truth by every means and by every opportunity in my power, and with a sincerity and impartiality, for which I can appeal to God, my adored Maker. My religion is founded on the love of God and my neighbor; on the hope of pardon for my offences; upon contrition; upon the duty as well as necessity of supporting with patience the inevitable evils of life; in the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can, to the creation, of which I am but an infinitesimal part. Are you a dissenter from this religion? I believe, too, in a future state of rewards and punishments, but not eternal.

You have again read Tacitus. What do you think of his religion, his philosophy, his morality? When Nero wished he could cut off the heads of the whole Roman empire with one stroke of his falchion, was this sentiment dictated by tyranny or philosophy, or humanity? And if any man should wish he could cut off the head of every Frenchman, Englishman, or Russian, at one blow, would he not be as wise, as benevolent, and philosophical? And those who wish they could decapitate Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, are they wiser or better?

John Adams thought himself a "Christian" and believed the biblical canon was, in some sense, revealed. He also associated Trinitarianism with creeds that were part and parcel of the "corrupt," superstitious, human religious authorities he radically rejected. The "the revelation from God, by the human understanding," was the reason that God gave man, the first revelation that no subsequent revelation (i.e., what was revealed in sacred text or interpretation thereof) could contradict. Adams thought the Trinity contradicted this first revelation and consequently was false.

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